Saturday, April 25, 2009

Open Source Social DNA

Biologists have known for a while that DNA plays a critical role in determining how an organism develops. Many have called it the blueprint of life. While this analogy does partially reveal the role DNA plays, a “blueprint” implies a plan generated from an outside source. Recent research has suggested that DNA works more by facilitating patterns of chemical relationships that play out over time, and in the process create the organism as a whole.

This distinction may sound small, but think about a blueprint. Everything is planned out ahead of time by the architect, leaving no room for spontaneous creativity on the part of the building itself. Hence, the building is not alive. If there is one thing we know unequivocally about life, it is that it is fundamentally creative. While DNA can set up patterns of interaction, it cannot dictate with any certainly how an organism will react to unpredicted environmental stimuli. Organisms face unique and unpredictable challenges all the time, and as such must constantly evolve both their genomes and the neural connectivity in their brains.


So what does all this have to do with currency? Groups of humans that have a shared purpose can be thought of as a social organism. Genomes, brains, and immune systems are all examples of adaptive networks within a single organism. And, memes serve a similar function in social organisms, since languages allow the formation of adaptive social networks. Ant colonies, bee-hives, and dog packs are all examples of social organisms in the animal world using rudimentary memes to enable group communication. Single organisms become part of social organisms through various forms of coordination. To explore all the ways this can happen here would be unnecessary since there have been countless excellent books and blog posts written on the subject. However, for the purposes of this blog post, it is interesting to note that one of the most influential forms of social coordination in our society is currency.


We know with certainty that different types of currency create different tendencies in the types of collective behavior human social organisms exhibit. A currency design cannot predict this collective behavior in the sense of a blueprint, but rather it sets up a series of possible discrete interactions that, when taken as a whole, manifest as a collective behavior. Nothing can predict with accuracy how a social organism will react to a new set of circumstances. However, once it experiences a certain threshold of stress, it usually evolves new social contracts and currencies that fit the new circumstances. In this light, currency can be thought of as a one form of social DNA.


Sexual reproduction gave eukaryotic cells the ability to have much a greater range of creativity than their prokaryotic forbearers. Creativity and novelty were introduced into the DNA in each generation, and successful adaptations were passed on to subsequent offspring. Our current social organism has many fudmental flaws that can be traced to the fact that our current monetary system is stuck. It keeps reproducing the same dysfunctional behavior in the social organism, and it badly needs to adapt. But it doesn’t just need to adapt into a newer version of the same fundamental process. It needs to adapt the way it adapts. Open source currencies will do for social DNA what sexual reproduction did for biological DNA. They will radically increase the ability of the social organism to adapt to new and changing circumstances. What’s more, we will almost certainly need this capacity to deal with the challenges the 21st century has in store. Please visit The MetaCurrency Project to see how we might actually make this happen.

4 comments:

bunny said...

Well said, Alan. Evolution is the process, so to have static blueprints is oxymoronic thinking when it comes to DNA.

Portland, OR certainly has some evolving social organisms. Sure is a fun time!

Arthur Brock said...

Many people seem to struggle with the "social organism" metaphor. I think that might be a function of two things: 1) loose boundaries which make it difficult to see social level organisms in the usual way we see "things" and 2) wanting to be individually more important than we are.

Boundaries: We are in the habit of seeing the world as objects and identifying objects by their boundaries. Normally, you're sitting across the table over there, and I'm sitting over here, and the boundaries seem pretty obvious and inviolable. Of course, that's an illusion. We're breathing the same air, drinking the same water, eating from the same biological food supplies. We might even go so far has to have a blood transfusion or organ transplant.

Because of the level on which we participate in them, it is hard for us to see the boundaries of social organisms. We are like air/water/bacteria/nutrients or at best like cells with the capacity to move between social organisms. Even more confusing, is the fact that we participate in MULTIPLE social organisms. Surely, my cells are in an exclusive relationship with me, aren't they? (No, in fact they are not.)

Importance: To really see this picture, makes us feel small. To see a company as a social critter, and its departments as organs fulfilling different functions to keep the critter alive, and people as replaceable cells who may come and go with little effect... Surely, that's not right. I'm more important than that!

Unfortunately, this leads us to some very bad ways of thinking. We labor under the illusion that changing the people changes the organism. That good people, will run a company responsibly... or that electing a different President will magically create change.

The only way that real change (other than death/collapse) happens in a social organism is when its structure or DNA is significantly modified. Sometimes a new leader actually does that, but frequently they don't. And what's worse is that some of what needs the most changing is deeply embedded in our assumptions about how things work.

Think of it this way. No matter how creative and enlightened a CEO is, his company is still fueled by the same money as all the other companies. Without the ability to change the fundamental lifeblood of the organism, how much change is actually possible? How much does the structure of that lifeblood force certain responses and behaviors?

Until we embrace our capacities as DNA-constructors of the social organisms we inhabit, they will continue to run amok, be diseased, collapse and deplete our planet.

It's time for us to step up.

Vincent Trautmann said...

Useful fruits for thoughts! Thanks Arthur.

Alan Rosenblith said...

I think people's confusion about social organisms might also stem from a perceived conflict between individual autonomy and group cohesion. Roughly speaking classic conservatism (in the USA) has favored the individual, and classic liberalism has favored the group. However, the kind of social organism we are talking about transcends that dilemma.

The autonomy and sovereignty of the individual is respected because they have the freedom to choose the social contracts (or currencies) they want to participate in. If they don't like any of the choices, they are free to start a new one or fork an existing one.

The cohesion of the group is also embraced since all of this happens in an open context where reputation is a powerful motivator. Successful social contracts will likely have many open components that allow social pressure to be the primary enforcer of good behavior. Basically, if a person gets more out of fair play than out of cheating, they will likely respect the rules of the game as has been proven on Ebay.